Sunday, January 1, 2017

SP 6102 - Kitbashing a RPO from MDC/Athearn Parts

Happy New Year - 2017!

With the new year here, I thought I'd look back on one of my older models that went through a complete rebuild and repaint about 4 years ago.  It's the story of my modeling the SP 6102 which began about 18 or 19 years ago now.

SP 6102 rests at Bakersfield being reloaded with US Mail & Express for LA or Oakland. 2016 photo at LMRC

If you've been following my blog for a while, you'll have seen the SP 6102 before in my Modeling Mail Trains, No. 55 & 56, the Tehachapi Mail blog.  But I get ahead of myself, let's crank the way-back machine back to the late 1990s and see where this car started its life.

Starting Points


The parts I had to work with in the late 1990s was as follows:  MDC/Roundhouse made 60ft Harriman Baggage, RPO, Combine, Coach, Diner, and Observation cars as kits.  I had several of the baggage cars that I bought new and a full set of the cars from many years before when I was about 6 years old.

The models I started with for this project was an MDC 60ft Harriman Baggage car and a 60ft RPO car as well.  The kitbash results in a lot of "spare parts" but most modelers will find uses for them in other kitbashes soon enough.

MDC 60ft Harriman Baggage kit - Now produced in a retooled R-T-R form by Athearn

The Baggage cars are pretty simple, I cover them in detail in my Upgrading MDC Baggage Cars blog post, but the important thing here is to note that they have a single large (7ft) door and a single standard (4'10") door per side and that both sides are the same, just rotated 180 degrees.

Right side of an MDC 60ft RPO

Left side of an MDC 60ft RPO

The RPO I had on hand was about the same as the old SPMW 1176 model that am using as a photographing model here.  I should briefly say here that the above MDC RPO is not correct for anything really.  I talk about the SP's only RPO that was similar to the MDC car in my Mistakes in Modeling - SP 4261, a Storage Mail Car blog post.

The points of interest on the MDC RPO model is that it has a pair of windows on one end and the three windows on the other.  The doors are 3ft 3in wide, which is 5" too wide, and they are also not the correct height.  They should extend up into the letterboard.

Were I to do the kitbash again, I would probably use a blank section of carside and scratch build the RPO door, possibly the header and footer as well with Archer Rivets (S-scale) to match the frame rivets below the door.

The Plan for the Kitbash


I don't remember exactly when I bought my first reference book from the SPH&TS, it was a copy of the Diagrams Common Standard Passenger Train Cars Southern Pacific Lines as of March 1, 1933 book.

The first SP Passenger Reference book I owned

As I leafed through the book, I looked at the different 70ft RPO-Baggage designs.  The big 70 foot cars struck me as an interesting design.  The 70-BP-30-1 class cars had the right window spacing for the MDC RPO parts I had on hand, so I settled on the SP 5134 as my project car.

Here's an example of SP 5130, 70-BP-30-1 or 70-BP-15-3 which are externally the same, model by Soho

The Diagram book lists the car numbers as they were in 1933.  This did cause me some problems in other projects as I am modeling after WW2.  The book didn't have any other information really about the cars history, but it did have very useful data such as truck centers, bolster centers, overall length of the body, and bolster centers from endsills.  Given this data, I was actually able to make a decent model from minimal information provided.

Details of Construction

The windows for the RPO were three closely spaced will work for the 2nd-4th windows from the RPO door.  I planned then to use the RPO door and one of the pair of windows from the other end of the car.  The double doors from the baggage car will work.

The single window at the baggage end however I decided that I did not want to deal with four more splices of the carside just to use the windows from the RPO body.  Instead I scratch built the baggage windows as a sheet styrene insert with clear styrene sheet glass behind it.  The baggage end window goes in the blank panel centered right above the truck.

The extra space between the 1st and 2nd window is made from the cut and splice resulting from the two RPO window sections being joined together.

Upgrades Over the Years

The original trucks I put under the car were Rivarossi HW 6-wheel trucks.  In the late 2000's I replaced the trucks with Walthers HW 6-wheel trucks which roll much better.  I've shown how I install the Walthers trucks in my SP 5199 blog build series, so I will not rehash that here.

Not a bad looking car for the work of a 17 or 18 year old!

The SP 5134 was finished with Floquil Pullman Green and Microscale decals.  Clear plastic windows were glued in place for the windows and square Details Associates - Utility Vents replaced the round MDC vents provided in the kit.  The roof was spliced to match the recombined body length.

A New Job

The SP 5134 was in regular use at the club for years.  By the late 2000s, and it fell into regular use at the club's 1950s Time Table & Train Order Operation Sessions as a setout and pickup mail storage car on the Owl and Nos.55 & 56 (the Tehachapi Mail) at Bakersfield.  This was dictated by the lack of mail catcher arms which meant that it couldn't really serve as a working RPO car anyway.  Therefore the lettering as an RPO car wasn't really "correct" anymore for it being used as a non-working storage car.

At some point, also in the late 2000s I upgraded the car with new Walthers 6-wheel trucks which was a vast improvement over the worn out Rivarossi trucks which I'd originally fitted to the car 10 years earlier.  This is why in all the pre-repainting photos I have of the car show it with Walthers trucks.

Unhappy Playing with Siblings - Time for Some New Clothes

Soon after I painted the car with the Floquil and it all looked good, I then started running and getting the car in service at the La Mesa Club in San Diego.  The fleet of cars they use are all standardized on a much better paint match to the SP's actual Dark Olive Green color.  So all of my cars from those early years looked simply wrong when run in a mixed consist.  (Link to What Color is SP Dark Olive Green? blog)

A roster photo from 2011 of the SP 5134 with new trucks. Notice the hand cut baggage window at left from sheet styrene.

To hide the badly mismatched paint on the models, I weathered the RPO car rather heavily.  Most SP cars would not have become that dirty in one trip.  Some headend cars didn't get washed between multiple trips, so for my RPOs and baggage cars it was a good excuse.  Over the course of the weathering, touchups, etc. the windows became dullcoted and very weathered, I've not seen many RPOs with windows that bad.

Becoming the SP 6102 Baggage-Express Car


By 2012-2014 the decals weren't holding up well anymore, it was time for a change.

Sometime between 2012 and 2014 I was able to use the SPH&TS Passenger Cars Vol.3 - Headend Cars book to research more about this class of car.

By this time, I wasn't too happy with the incorrect paint color and the extremely heavy weathering of the car that I had to do to hide the Floquil paint color problem.  I was, however, still happy with the physical model underneath the paint.

Mail Catcher Arm installed on SP 5199, for catching mail bags at speed.

Also the lack of the mail catcher arm installed the car really wasn't fitted out for use as an RPO.  So I decided it was time to completely upgrade the SP 5134 with new StarBrand Dark Olive Green paint and ThinFilm decals.  One thing that helped me decide to repaint the SP 5134 as the 6102 was that I acquired another 70ft Baggage-RPO from Soho around the same time, which would be better model of a working RPO car.

I found in looking at the list of RPO-Baggage cars converted to straight baggages (6000-6500-series), the new book listed all the cars that were rebuilt, what number and class they came from, and when the conversion were made.  When an RPO car was withdrawn from lease to the US Post Office, the RPO US Mail lettering was painted over pretty quickly.  This is not to say that extra RPOs were not used as storage cars with the interior fittings stowed, but the letter cases and overhead bins would restrict how much sack and pouch mail could be crammed into a baggage car without the fittings in the way.

It turns out that a sister car to the SP 5134, the SP 5138 was converted to Baggage-Express service in Nov '50, becoming the SP 6102.

Left side of repainted SP 6102 with chalk marks for car routing added.

Right side of repainted SP 6102

The SP Psgr Car Vol.4 book has a lovely picture of SP 6121, converted to Baggage-Express service in 1954, on page 372, showing how one of these converted cars would look with the repainted reporting marks.  Several of the photos in the book also show freshly patched reporting marks and a large area under the RPO windows (the size of the old RPO lettering) which was fresh and clean.  These photos made up the basis for my repainted SP 6102 as I thought it would be fun to have an ex-RPO running around to show off this side of history.

I scrubbed the body down with liquid soap and water to get rid of the loosening decals and any paint that might flake off.  Then I lightly painted over the carsides, masking off the windows, with the SP Dark Olive Green color.  As the new decals went back on, I used only decals for the "Railway Express Agency," "Baggage," and reporting marks lettering, leaving off the "Railway Post Office" and "US Mail" lettering.

I elected not to try to replace the RPO doors at this time to make them higher.  I had already tried to do such a conversion on the SP 5187 with mixed results and decided to leave the SP 6102 mostly as it was from 18 years before.

In Closing


The SP 6102 will likely see many more years of active service moving storage mail and baggage in various consists.

Here we see the SP 6102 riding on No.55 just ahead of the rider coach, SP 1190, at Caliente, La Mesa Model Railroad Club.

Just because a model is older, has a poor decal job, your skills have improved, or modeling materials have changed doesn't mean the model's not worth improving to current standards!

Jason Hill

Links to Related Blog Posts:
Modeling SP 2701 (Part 1) 60-CC-1 Chair Car from Model Power Coach
Mistakes in Modeling - SP 4261, a Storage Mail Car
Modeling the Mail, Nos 55 & 56, the Tehachapi Mail
Modeling Index of SP HW Passenger Cars
Modeling Mt. Nebo (Part 1), 10-Section-Lounge-Observation from old Walthers metal kit


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